CDP or Transport/DAC- Need help

I just moved back to the US after 6 years living in a London flat. Consequently, I didn't pay too much attention to high end, audio or video developments, during that time. I've since upgraded my pre-amp (Pass Labs X-1), speakers (Sonus Faber Cremona) and cabling. Amplification is through VAC PA-160mkII monoblocks. These take EL34's, 6L6's, 6550 or KT88 and have two 6SN7's on the driver side (using a Brimar and Raytheon, VT231 combo on each side). Currently running either GE6CA7 fatboys in triode (0 feedback) or GE 6550's in ultralinear (0 feedback). Thinking about the digital side now. I play only red book CD's and won't be using this unit for video or SACD.

I quite like the sound of my current Classe digital separate set-up but it's 10 years old now. May have been class A then but a lot has happened.

Looking to spend $3,000-4,000 and will buy used. Not wedded to separates or a player but definitely want to have balanced outputs. I'm also leaning towards a top loader as I'm not a big fan of sliding drawers. Not then end of the world as I realize this last requirement severely limits the selection.

The stuff by Metronome, Audiomeca, Cary, Ayre and SimAudio all looks interesting.

My system's not thin sounding, nor is my listening preference which is probably towards the warm side. Nice mid-range, excellent voice reproduction and articulation, realistic cymbal overtones and soundstage are what I look for when auditioning. Massive, driving bass is not a requirement. I listen to rock, jazz (electric and acoustic), orchestral and chamber music.

Any thoughts, comments, links would be appreciated. Also have no clue about the upsampling debate or why people now don't want HDCD on their digital front ends.

You should consider going the computer-driven DAC route at this juncture. It is vastly superior to even the best player or Transport and DAC. Once you can build playlists of your favorite tracks, you wil not need a remote control anymore. You can just put a laptop at your side and control everything from there. No scratches on the disks to worry about either.
I would recommend a used Cary 306/200 or perhaps a used Wadia 861, both are in or below your price range and offer balanced outputs. I would characterize the Cary as being on the detailed but warm and musical side, and the Wadia being on the super detailed and transparent side. Both excellent players albeit different sounding. Neither are top loaders but both are built like battleships. I must also say that I'm also a big Nebbiolo fan and thus appreciate you moniker. I would recommend perhaps branching out and trying some Barbaresco's as well (just kidding, I'm sure you have!), and definitely enjoy this unprecedented string of super vintages we're enjoying, 1996-2001. A great time to stock up! Cheers!
I spent a lot of time in the Northeastern part of Italy and developed an incredible taste for the red wine in Piemonte area. I was in Verona for the World bicycling championships. Great town, food and wine, never mind the racing. Same experience in Torino.

I didn't realize the Cary had balanced outs. I haven't listened to Wadia stuff since the mid-90's and thought it was a bit sterile back then but they definitely have build quality and staying power.
I just went through this process and ended up with the following:

Alesis Masterlink 9600 (modified by TRL). These can be bought for about $800 new and the mod is $550.

Vh (Chris Ven Haus) Pulsar coaxial digital cable with WBT nextgen connectors as an output from the Alesis to my DAC. These are about $275 new.

Vh Flavor 4 powercord with Furutechs. These are about $250 new.

Audio Mirror D1 DAC (non up/oversampling). These are available on Audiogon for $499 new.

Nordost Red Dawns as outputs from the DAC. These are available on Audiogon new and used. Expect to pay about $275/pair.

So for about $2700 you have basically all new gear and a very nice Transport/DAC set up. The Alesis is a also a CD recorder and HD with 40GB of storage. I have been using it as a standalone CDP and transport through the DAC. As the DAC is burning in it is sounding much better. Most of the TRL mods address the digital section of the Alesis so Paul Weitzel recommended I use it as a transport. He compares the quality of the Alesis to the big MBL and CEC rigs. The person I purchased this from replaced his $17k CEC rig with the Alesis and used it with an Audio Logic DAC.

Good luck and have fun searching for your set-up.